By Rodman A. Sims

Today’s popular musicians seem more concerned with laser light shows and bizarre forms of dress than the quality of their music. Nonetheless, these same groups make millions for their efforts. Despite the obvious shortcomings of most popular music and the pseudo-musicians who perform it, the fact that major corporations pay Michael Jackson and Bruce Springsteen millions to pitch products sends a powerful message to our youth. Teaching these students, we need to ask ourselves why young people would want to study a musical instrument when symphony and jazz musicians are barely able to find work while poorly trained musicians reap millions.

Because music has the potential to offer young players an identity during their teen years, I think we should find a way to offer them a healthy long-range plan for making music part of their lives, rather than simply exploiting their talents in our programs. Solving more immediate problems, such as playing in tune, is less important than helping students to form a lasting positive attitude toward classical music.

We should offer the view that music is a means of self-expression, not only a matter of competing for first chair, being a member of a socially defined group on campus, or a potential profession. Music, we might tell our students, should be an integral part of life, a path to self-knowledge. The future of musical ensembles rests in our ability to communicate this message.

In the case of music, making money, becoming famous, or being a part of the band is not enough. We should direct our young musicians’ thinking in the right direction. As a young jazz drummer I wanted to play l8ike the combined talents of Buddy Rich and Louie Bellson; my musical friends wanted to emulate the best players of their instruments. I wish someone had taken me aside early in my youth and explained the impracticality of trying to form my career in the shadow of other great players.

It always saddens me to hear that all-too familiar tale of the top-notch high school or college player who quit playing his instrument the day after he discovered the goals and dreams he developed as a young player no longer fit his present situation. Saddened and confused about his attitude toward music in the future he packs his instrument away, finds a real job, gets married, has musical kids, and the cycle begins anew. It strikes me as tragic for all that work and effort to go down the drain because no one offered these players a healthy way to think about themselves as a musician.

What’s more important than the prospect of money and signing autographs to young players? Most of us soon learn that money buys the essentials as well as the luxuries of life; but not even Malcolm Forbes can play saxophone like John Coltrane did. Nor can he play piano like Oscar Peterson or drums like Steve Gadd. His money will buy the finest instruments and the best teachers, but not the ability or the talent to play. Forbes has never known the feeling of having people walk into an auditorium with a frown on their face, and leave with a smile because they enjoyed hearing his music. That is the exclusive joy of the performer.

If young players strive to become members of a name band, solo performers, or rich and famous, their careers will probably end in disappointment because those goals are often not attainable. It’s possible to be a great player and never be discovered. The public’s taste may change with the times, and unless you are able to hang on to a sizeable following or adapt to the fickle desires of the marketplace, employment opportunities may dry up.

When a young player only wants to be a better musician, he can’t feel disappointment. If students decide they will practice as often as they can, study with the best teachers, play with others as often as possible, and generally commit themselves to becoming good players, they will never fail. The great jazz drummer and clinician Roy Burns used to say, “I am not trying to be the world’s greatest drummer; just the best Roy Burns I can be.”

This attitude doesn’t require students to abandon their dreams. In fact, it doesn’t require them to shun the bright lights, applause, fans, or anything else that might motivate them to practice on a hot summer afternoon while everyone else is lounging around the pool. What is does allow them to do is to concentrate on their music with a clear head. It replaces self-indulgence with self-improvement and dreams with attainable goals. Imagine how much easier it is to say to yourself, “I am going to improve my technique by practicing major and minor scales every day,” instead of the slippery wish of winning the Van Cliburn piano competition, or becoming a Julliard graduate.

In New England neighborhoods string quartets assemble to play chamber music one night a week. Their purpose is to play, learn, enjoy, and enrich their lives with music, independent of any other goal. The rest of us would do well to adopt this attitude. If fame, riches, and a career are born along the way, then that will be a bonus.

The gift of music is a rich one for the listener, and priceless for the player. I know of few things that have come closer to bringing me such lasting pleasure in my lifetime. The world is improved as we find ways to fulfill our potential, not out of a selfish desire to be one up on the competition, but to better ourselves for the simple joy of developing fully as human beings.